Shame, Blame and Manipulation [Words Can Harm – Part 6]

Submitted by on Friday, September 15, 2006One Comment

Shame, Blame and Manipulation

This is Part 6 of a 7 part series entitled “Words Can Harm. Words Can Heal.”

“No. You shouldn’t be ashamed of yourself.”

Shame on you. You should be ashamed of yourself.

We’re founded upon shame. From the Bible to the Puritans to the year 2006 where people still quibble over sexual orientation and interracial relationships to unwed mothers, rape victims, and child pedophilia. From anti-abortion activists to fundamental religions, shame is around us, ever ready to pounce and consume. This tells me that it’s not working. Shame does not work. One more time. Shame does not work.

Definition of shame: 1 a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety b : the susceptibility to such emotion

So, to shame someone we are attempting or desiring to inflict a painful emotion (perhaps in the hope of getting the person to feel it to such a degree that they relinquish the shortcoming you perceive in them?). If we think a person should have guilt we shame. If we think a person should be different we shame. If we think a person is not doing what we think they ought to do we shame. Wow. We think we are up there in the God realm with that attitude! No wonder it doesn’t work – we’re not God. But still, we sure keep trying don’t we? I wonder if it’s because it’s easier for us to shame others than it is to work on our own selves and shortcomings?

The only ways shame does work is in a couple of ways, neither of them approaching the desired or hoped for result:

  1. The person shamed may get better at hiding their behavior or lying to you about it.
  2. The person shamed will end up resenting you for it and may disregard you entirely.

Both of those results seem pretty bleak to me. Can you think back to times you felt shamed by someone? Did you feel closer or warmer with them? Did it change the behavior or action that had been shamed in the first place? Now think of a time you shamed someone. Has someone ever given up a behavior or action that you disagreed with because you shamed them?

People don’t change due to the shame – not the way the shaming person hopes for. If you think that calling your husband a “dumb-ass” is going to make him smarter, think again. A prettier or younger woman may come around and think he’s very intelligent and then what would you do with yourself? If you think that telling your wife she’s resembling a bovine these days is helpful to her, you’ve just revealed yourself to be non-sympathetic and cruel.

Shame and Blame Partner Up

Shame and blame often go together. Watch this:

  • Maybe if you weren’t so fat I’d take you out to dinner more often!
  • My mother told me I shouldn’t have married you. I should’ve listened.
  • We can’t afford to move thanks to the hospital bills from your operation.
  • Janet used to get me coffee every morning when we were together, why can’t you?
  • I guess your skirt shouldn’t have been so tight if you didn’t want anyone grabbing your butt.
  • You must have done something for him to be beating you the way he does. What’d you do?
  • We don’t talk about what grandpa did. You shouldn’t have been in his lap all the time.
  • You never put me first! After everything I have given up for you!
  • Two men together… No wonder he has AIDS.
  • You can kill a living thing? May God forgive you for letting yourself get raped.

Why it’s Chosen

Control Issues. As you can see from the above examples, some of them are pretty clearly about trying to manipulate someone into doing what we want them to do. Other instances of shame are used to deny responsibility in their power to control or a judgmental feeling based in a belief that is not their business to control in the first place. The coffee example, instead of attempting to make the woman feel bad for not being more like his ex, may have been better stated to be: “I’d like it if you made me coffee. I feel loved when you get me coffee.” I bet that would have made his new partner feel appreciated that she could have that power to make him feel loved! But instead, I wonder if she felt “less than” at what he said instead?

Denial. And still, other instances of blaming or shaming a person could be based in denial, perhaps an involuntary form of control. I have always maintained that denial isn’t lying. Denial is necessary until we have other available resources for us at our disposal in order to cope with whatever problem we’re currently “in denial” about. This does not mean we go to shaming and blaming until those resources come along. If that woman knew what Grandpa did; If she really acknowledged it, she may have to make some choices she’s scared to make so it’s easier to blame the victim and render her as being accountable for her own victimization using shame. Or how about the person asking what the other one did in order for her to “cause herself” to get beaten? This seems to be another classic denial to me. Probably goes something like this, “Tom is such a sweet man. There’s no way he could hurt that sweet Katie. I remember that time he saved my cat from the peril of dogs. Katie must have really done something to set him off. Maybe she’s not as sweet as she looks.”

Human Nature is Sometimes an Excuse. In my experience, it’s human nature to want to avoid the uglier side of reality. Our brain makes all sorts of tricks to accommodate that wish and when it does, we sometimes inflict involuntary wounds on the person who has lived it first hand. This is not a case of shame, blame, or manipulation, but have you heard of the well-intentioned friends say to the mourning parents, “Oh you can have more kids. You’re still young.” after the loss of a child? The person saying it clearly hasn’t suffered such loss for if she did she would understand that that was not very consoling and some could even say non-sympathetic, but her mind is incapable of understanding such a loss…of grasping the sort of pain this is and so she offers up her version of looking on the bright side. We can’t accuse this person of being cruel because that would imply a malicious intent, but assuming she really wanted to console, all we can say about her is she hasn’t experienced this pain before. However, what if someone said, “If you had been better parents you would have taken her to that specialist I recommended.” Not only is that insensitive but it’s shaming, blaming and seems quite cruel and based in a controlling personality because that entire sentence reeks of “You are bad people and if you were good people you would have done what I told you to do and your child would be alive today.” which is inappropriate in the face of any loss, at any time, I don’t care how much time has gone by.

Human nature is sometimes an excuse because throughout history and childhood indoctrinations we are taught that our problems are caused by the outside; Therefore if I am angry, hurt, upset, it must be your fault. And making human nature an excuse still does not render us into freedom so let’s not use that as an excuse.

Why it’s So Harmful

Manipulation. People sometimes invoke shame and/or blame in order to manipulate us or an outcome they have deemed as desirable. It’s my feeling that they feel that being honest about it will either not produce their desired result, that they’re incapable of honest communication (due to perhaps family of origin issues), or that they’re so angry and mad about an outcome that has occurred, they can’t extricate their anger from their desire. Manipulation is the act of shrewdly or deviously influencing an outcome. Relationships tend to suffer when people around us begin to think they’re always seemingly being puppeteered for someone else’s ends. Can you think of a relationship that felt good when you were feeling manipulated?

The Ultimate Harm. Blame and shame are two prime ways to manipulate (or control) other people. And the way I perceive it as most harmful is that the people growing up feeling blamed and shamed are those who have a better chance at invoking their own blame and shame buttons as well as onto others around them. Children learn at a young age to feel shame. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” and {slap slap} “Don’t you ever say that word again!” Children are born with the desire to make their parents proud so when parents make it clear they are no longer proud – of whatever – that child begins to understand that their worth as a human {self-esteem}, their lovability, is wrapped tightly and contingent upon “how good I am.” And more particularly, how “good others think I am.” And because “good” varies from person to person and situation to situation, will this young child ever find her own barometer, her own “self,” or God consciousness? Or will she continually be at the whim of those around her because she has been stunted?

If blame and shame go on in a household unchecked, a young girl may be prone to victimizations of domestic violence, a controlling boyfriend, an eating disorder, a drug or alcohol problem, or promiscuity. As a result of this kind of lifestyle she may be more prone to contracting a life-threatening STD such as AIDS, being married or serious with a boyfriend at too young of an age, early unplanned pregnancy, hepatitis, liver failure, kidney failure, suicide or an untimely and early death. A young male may carry some of the same symptoms but because society teaches men that they “should be men” he is more likely to be the dominating force that uses violence in order to control his partner. “Look what you made me do” and “You need to quit pushing my buttons.” The fact of this is that his buttons were put there long before she ever came along and if she has not been raised in or has overcome her own “blame/shame” she could very well be unaware that she even pushed a button!

Shame and Blame Do Not Work

Shame and blame are not successful. Time and time again our society repeats this and somehow thinks that this time it will be different. I will just rule with an iron fist more or I can “appropriately” do it and it will be successful. Shame and blame often does much damage that may not be visibly apparent at that time but with it’s use, builds up walls either inside the person we’re attempting to “teach” or within our relationships. Mother may not witness daughter’s promiscuous behavior and low feelings of self-worth because while at home daughter has “learned the game.” Dad may not understand why his son buries his head in his arms and sits on the ground when all Dad thought he did was “tell him he threw like a sissy.”

Think back to when blame really worked for you. I am sure we’ve all had occurrences in our life when we blamed or when people blamed us. I know that for me, when I have blamed someone, nothing ever got solved. I heard in a movie recently something like, “Okay. Even if we know where to put the blame, ironically that is still not solving the problem.” Besides having a strong disdain for the word “blame” I think that’s an accurate thought. People seem to somehow feel that if they can assign “blame” that the problem will be solved. Examine that agreement that the world had you adopt. Does that make sense, that by assigning blame, we will have our solution to whatever problem would have us assigning the blame? [Leave blame and fault to the insurance companies and attorneys. It doesn’t work so well in relationships.]

And when shame comes up is usually right after someone has targeted someone for blame. Instead of an honest plea or a recognition of how we are hurt, we seem to go right to “…cause if you weren’t such a worthless…” following, “Well it’s your fault that … ” Maybe someone in your life really is responsible for some egregious act of willful malice or neglect upon your person, your instincts, or your property. But if this is the case and you spend your time trying to assign the blame and then go right to shame, ask yourself if this is the solution to the problem or more massaging of the problem.

Responsibility. Responsibility is a more dignified term and doesn’t necessarily accuse the offender as guilty unlike the terms blame and fault. I don’t know about anyone else but when someone accuses me of something, or says “It’s your fault that…” or “I blame you for…” my first instinct is to become defensive. I will defend my right to exist in my person wholly and completely and I’ll be busy formulating my defense and not hearing a thing you pontificate from that point on. Now that may be just me but I have a feeling it’s human nature that God built us to be sentient and autonomous thinking people. So when you assume power over me by declaring me guilty or at fault I’ll be so busy proving that, in my mind at least even if not out loud, that I will miss what your real source of contention may be. Please do not be misled by my smile and appropriate nod shakes during your speech, I am absolutely not listening to you. Can you think back to when you did the same thing or am I the only one? :-)

If a friend comes to me and says “I felt really hurt when you gave me the finger after I told you that I’d had a rough day.” My response would be one of empathy, compassion, and sorrow. I would feel remorseful that my friend felt hurt by my action and I would say so. [I would not take responsibility for her feelings, but I would take responsibility for being a mutual partner in our relationship. And for me, that means listening as best I can to her grievance in a non-judging, sympathetic and present manner.] I would then explain that I’d not given her the finger but that I was about to show her that I had a cut on it but then thought better of it when she was getting into how hard of a day she had. Then we’d laugh as I showed her my finger then. Our relationship would continue and we’d trust each other a little more after I would go on to say “Oh my gosh! I would not give you the finger!” and she would respond with “I am so glad! I thought that was your form of humor!”

What if blame would have been used instead? In a similar scenario where blame would be used instead of? the above expression of “How I felt when” here is what would it more closely could have resembled: “What do you mean ‘what’s wrong?’ No wonder you have no friends if you typically respond to their problems by popping them the bird!” With this one statement this person has shamed me – by either telling a truth that I haven’t many friends, or a fabrication that I haven’t many friends, blamed me – by implicitly stating that it’s my fault I haven’t many friends if it is a truth and has perhaps just blamed me for any relationship she and I may lose. That’s a tough pill for me to digest, especially when I was just trying to share something. But then in thinking better of it, because she seemed to need more from me than I needed of her in that moment, it came across as something it wasn’t. At this point, if I tried to *explain* my truth she is so worked up she may respond with “Nice justification!” At this point I would feel completely helpless and have anger of my own spawned from her invalid assumptions. “First of all, I have plenty friends. Second of all, if it seems I don’t have many it’s because I…[fill in the blank]. Third of all, with your stupid assumptions no wonder you have none!” Does this sound familiar? Remember Agreement #1 [“Be Impeccable” – speak only in the direction of truth and love] and #3 [“Don’t Make Assumptions” – find the courage to ask questions and communicate what you really want] .

I have a couple of relationships in my life today that operate this way, with my being an actor in them. It’s frustrating because I often feel as if I have to defend myself and that goes against who I am. It’s exhausting and tiring always feeling subjugated to the point that when we offer a defense when asked, it’s not good enough or it’s called a “justification” and if we don’t respond, the person has made it clear she’ll assume the worst answer. Yes, these are my true life examples of unhealthy relationships and I have them and they hurt badly when they hurt. Thank God, though, that my self-worth isn’t wrapped in them and I credit that in large part to the process of recovering from shame and blame and in the adventure of discovering my authentic voice that reveals my authentic self the more I practice it.

The Solution

I understand that theory has not often much to do with our realities when we’re reading an article or a book on how better life could be if only… Sure the world could be perfect if each and every one of us learned to get rid of shame, blame, and manipulation and the subsets like gossip, name-calling, labels, and sarcasm.. If we could all learn how to truly express with 100% accuracy each and every time in order to “get to that truthful and authentic expression,” wouldn’t we live in a truly different world? I do know I would be happier and more peaceful. I would have authentic relationships and I would feel trusting and open. I would feel the freedom to be completely who I am and that would be a loving, caring, compassionate and sensitive person with good intentions expressing myself always perfectly. Unfortunately this is not how it is yet, but in the meantime and quite fortunately, I can start practicing in my own world.

It would be wonderful if people took responsibility for their relationships and admitted when they were less than skillful in a particular expression but again, many of these same people have had to build up a thick layer of ego-shell because they themselves have experienced other people who refused to take responsibility. What ends up happening is no one is responsible but everyone else is “to blame.” I like to think of Jesus of Nazareth at this point. Historically, according to some religious texts and beliefs he took the blame – all of it. He took the blame so that freedom could be had by us other people. So if we could only pretend that blame no longer existed, wouldn’t part of our speech, and by extension, our self’s be changed for the better? Wouldn’t we then be almost forced into looking for the solution and where it could be hiding?

Assigning blame is a silly man’s folly…like looking for answers as to why it’s raining rather than for the umbrella. Sure there may or may not be an immediate answer especially when the weatherman said no rain and less than an hour ago Doppler radar indicated no clouds, but considering you wanted to be somewhere else, which would be the wise move? Standing where you are, not moving and frantically trying to peddle, probe, and push as to why it’s raining, or go looking for the umbrella?

Next time, we’ll practice looking for the umbrella together.

Updated Nov 03, 2012

Look for the Epilogue Monday September 18, 2006.

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One Comment »

  • samsara (author) said:

    I really fell short on Part 7. I’ll try getting that ASAP. Had some life things coming up and have been quite defunct in my online life. I appreciate your comments, as always!

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